The SS63 across the Appenines from Tuscany in to Emilia Romagna is a fantastic drive. The road winds around the mountains with different and more amazing views at every corner. We were heading towards Modena but were enjoying the area enormously and in the mild spring weather we opted to stay at Camping Le Fonti near Cervarezza Terme (Busana) for a few days and enjoy some mountain serenity and walking.
Camping Le Fonti is open all year round and has plenty of shade under chestnut and beech trees for the heat of summer. In spring it is quieter and the site offers an ACSI discount and pitches on the higher parts of the site out of the trees and with panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. From our lofty pitch we could see the distinctive crags of the flat-topped Pietra di Bismantova a few kilometres away, dramatic in the evening sunset.
This is a large and rambling hillside site at 1,000 metres above sea level and in season it has everything for family camping with a restaurant, shop, organised activities and indoor pool. We don’t really need these things and were grateful to get fresh bread every morning, heated facilities in the chilly evenings and good hot showers.
The campsite is family-run and when we arrived mama was on reception. Although she spoke limited English we received a friendly welcome and managed to order bread [that her husband delivered in the morning] and get hold of a sketch map for the walk up Monte Ventasso, a steep-sided 1,727 metre high mountain that is clearly a popular walk from the campsite.
Monte Ventasso proved to be a fantastic full-day outing. The way-marked path initially climbs steadily through beautiful sun-dappled beech woods dotted with wood anemone, primroses and wild crocuses. If you don’t want to walk to the summit you could just go as far as the chapel and refuge at St Maria Maddalena and picnic here enjoying the marvellous views over the Secchia valley. Alternatively, in hot weather you could take the woodland paths to Lago Calamone, a pretty glacial lake below the mountain that is perfect for summer bathing.
We had lunch at the refuge below the rocky crags of the east flanks of Monti Ventasso before carrying on. The steep, narrow and rocky path up the east ridge was exposed in places but brings you to the wide and grassy ridge to the summit. We passed a curious wooden hinged figure on the way and met our first other walkers of the day, a German couple who were also on the campsite.
The summit is marked by a cross and we had views of the distinctive Pietra di Bismantova and a wide flat valley. Lago Calamone was immediately below us and in the further distance were higher snowy mountains. We took the direct route down that was steep and difficult. We reached the picturesque Lago Calamone and sat watching a group of young men enthusiastically playing football on the shore. We climbed upwards across scree slopes of large boulders and below the craggy face of Monti Ventasso to join our previous path, returning the same way, stopping for a rest and chocolate bars at the view point. We returned to our campervan tired but happy after walking about ten miles and climbing about 742 m of ascent.
Directions: From the A1 take the exit for Reggio Nell ‘Emilia and follow the SS63 to Cervarezza Terme. The campsite is signposted beyond Castelnovo ne Monfi.
‘Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.’ From Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides
Spend a lazy half-an-hour searching for travel quotes on the internet and you will find oodles and oodles of them. I do this occasionally when I am struggling with my writing and looking for inspiration for my own words; on one such occasion I discovered the quotation above. I made a note of it because the quote resonated and seemed to have some truth in it. Since then I have come back to it regularly and mulled it over.
It is a certainly a comforting thought that when I can no longer physically travel, I will continue to take journeys in my head. I like the thought of being able to play voyages out over and over again as often as I like. Those of us who have older friends who no longer travel as much as they once did will have witnessed the joy of this. Talking about my own travels can spark memories in these friends and give them a chance to reminisce and recall journeys they made and tell me their own travel stories from the past.
Perhaps my travel memories will be particularly strong. Being observant is part and parcel of being a travel writer, I make notes, take photographs and try and fix a place in my memory. Once I return home I spend my time editing photographs and writing travel articles and blog posts about my experiences and what I have seen. This process keeps the journeys constantly playing out in the forefront of my mind and they stay with me longer than if I had returned to another job.
The memories don’t disappear and therefore the trip doesn’t really end when the copy is sent to my editor or posted on the blog. I find I can be thinking about something else / anything else and a thought comes in sideways. I might be planning our next trip or doing something as mundane as wondering what to cook for our evening meal, a connection is made and recollections of a place will suddenly pop into ‘the quietest chambers’ of my mind.
Perhaps travel changes how my mind works and in more complex ways than I can ever explain. My travel-related research takes in the attractions, the history, the people and culture of a region and this breadth might help my mind establish new associations, tying together the new and old experiences and journeys. Perhaps these exciting labyrinthine links are one of the reasons that travel is so addictive.
A number of bloggers discuss travel addiction or dromomania. Like any addiction it seems that the constant new sights and sounds that travel provides can deliver a contented high to the brain. The brain likes this pleasurable sensory overload and will ask for more of this travel-gratification. While loving travel can be a demonstration of a passionate and adventurous nature, needing travel to thrive could be considered obsessive and damaging. And if this travel high only delivers if you visit new places you are on a road to compulsive journeys that take you way off the tourist trail.
I’m not concerned about dromomania. I am happy returning again and again to the same destination, there is always something new to find even in a well-visited area. Even in a familiar area, when we are travelling our days are packed with new experiences and this can be intoxicating. Yet, what I love the most on a trip is the stripped-down nature of our travelling life, everything feels happily straightforward, we are mostly in control of what is happening [although not always] and have the freedom to take each day as it comes. Whether we are an hour away from home or in a foreign country, I am always eager to relax, explore and get under the skin of a region.
We had a year travelling a few years ago and we had a ball but we both knew that we didn’t want to go for so long again. This was for various reasons but the main one was wanting to keep other relationships alive. Travelling for two or three months at a time is our compromise that works fairly well for us both; I get my fix of travelling that sustains me through a few months at home. Then I enjoy being where I am with my travel memories playing out over and over again in the quiet recesses of my mind until it is time to get our Blue Bus back on the road again!
Pat Conroy wrote many novels including The Price of Tides and The Great Santini.
Travelling full-time or for around 12 months in a campervan is becoming increasingly popular, for people of all ages, including among those of us who are too old to have had a gap year. If you are yearning to make that long trip, you might be wondering how you can make this adventure happen, and does reality match up to the dream. In 2009 we were two people in our late 40s early 50s, with jobs that paid the average wage for the UK and yet after a few years of planning and saving we were able to set off and do just that. Here are my tips to help you plan your own dream trip:
First Buy Your Campervan
Saving Money so you can Afford the Trip
What to do About Working When you Come Back
Living for 12 Months
What Clothes do you Need?
Dream vs Reality
1. First Buy Your Campervan
We bought our first campervan in 2005 but felt that this traditional VW was too small for full-time travel. By the time we set off on our adventure we owned a Devon Conversions VW Sundowner; this is a long wheelbase VW and has an on-board toilet but no bathroom. For many people this ‘van would still be much too small for two adults to live in for 12 months but for us it worked perfectly, small and discrete it never felt too big but it had everything we needed. That said, we pretty much stayed on campsites all the time and we were in the warmer parts of mainland Europe. Whether you have a huge RV or a micro-camper, my top tip is try out your ‘van for long holidays before you commit to 12 months in it, think about whether you want to wild camp all or most of the time and see how your outfit works for you.
We had owned the Sundowner for two years before we set off travelling, we had been away twice for over three weeks at a time and we were familiar with the ‘van and knew we could live in its confined space. Also after two years the van and the conversion had bedded in and any niggles had been sorted and problems ironed out.
Of course, some people travel full-time in a caravan and you might want to consider that option too. If your dream trip is to southern Europe for three or four months during the summer then you could save loads of money and just take a tent.
2. Money, Money, Money
Unless you can work on the road – and then that makes it a whole different trip – or have won the lottery, you will need to save some money before you travel. Before we went travelling we put away what we hoped was enough to live on for twelve months. In addition to this travelling fund we chose to save enough for a further six months to cover the period when we got back home and were looking for work. Tracking your spending for a year or so before you travel helps you know what these amounts will be for your own lifestyle and will vary depending on what you eat, how often you visit restaurants, how many attractions you take in and whether you use campsites or free camping. On our year away we spent £19,900, you can do it cheaper or you can spend a lot more.
We saved this money by down-sizing our home, doing without stuff and treats, selling everything we didn’t need through Ebay and working hard. For a few months, during the year before we set off I was juggling three jobs to contribute towards the savings. This was hard going but I had the motivation to get through a short period of stress to meet a clear aim.
Fluctuations with the Euro and Sterling made our planning more tricky and this will still be an issue. At the last minute in 2008 it became clear that thanks to the collapse of the banks and recession we had to save a few more thousand to cover our living costs as we were getting considerably less for our hard-earned pounds. We were lucky that a chunk of well-paid contract work turned up at just the right time.
We didn’t rent our property while we were away as we wanted to have it there should we need to return home in an emergency but this could be a good option for some people. The downside of our approach was that we also needed the money to keep the flat ticking over. We stopped any unnecessary bills such as broadband and telephone but continued insurance and minimum payments for utilities; at the time this was an additional £4,300.
A problem we found was that no one was able to offer affordable contents insurance for our empty flat, even though the site we live on is secure. Instead our son came to stay every couple of months to check the flat, clear the mail and ensure we were complying with the insurance. We were lucky that he was available to do this.
3. Giving up the Nine to Five?
Unless you are made redundant and have a large redundancy pot to spend on your trip you will need to decide what to do about work. We both resigned, leaving our jobs before we set off travelling. Another friend managed to secure a sabbatical and his job was kept open and this is a fantastic option if you can get it and it is worth asking but it will depend on your employer.
We believed [rightly it turned out] that we were both highly-skilled individuals and that at least one of us would find work that paid enough and was within commuting distance of our home in Salford in six months or less. The risk that we were wrong about this did increase thanks to that recession. You will know your local job market and how easy or difficult this will be but I would guess if you are based in a smaller town this could be hard, unless you have much needed skills or are willing to commute further.
What made a big difference to our circumstances was that having down-sized we were mortgage-free. This meant that we did not need to earn as much as we had in the past and jobs at even minimum wage would have been sufficient for us to keep the wolf from the door. As it turned out we both secured reasonable jobs within three months of getting home.
4. Living for 12 Months
Just to be clear – being away for 12 months is nothing like a holiday. For me it was much better that a holiday. Unlike a break from work, you don’t go through one week of unwinding and another of gearing up to go back to work. Full-time travel gives you an opportunity to be unshackled from being a wage slave, wake up without an alarm and plan your own day and we found this completely relaxing. All we really had to worry about was where we were going to go next and what we would eat that day. Life becomes fairly stripped down and simple and this is a liberating and exciting experience.
We deliberately kept our trip flexible. This meant that we could spend as long as we wanted in different places. Slovenia hadn’t really been on our list but we were so bowled over with the country we spent a month there and we were delightfully surprised to find that Austria was a great place to spend August.
Being away for 12 months does throw you together as a couple (unless you are travelling alone). We had been married for over 20 years and were confident that we could deal with this but it certainly isn’t something to do with a shaky relationship. I found that spending every day with my partner meant I got to know him even better and love him even more. We did talk about this and there were times when we did our own thing. If you need your own space then I would suggest that you discuss this, think through how often you need to get away on your own and how to make it happen. Sometimes just a half-hour morning walk on your own to get the milk is all you need.
5. What Will You Wear?
Our VW didn’t have unlimited amounts of storage space and we travelled light. The numbers of items of clothing we took are below to get you started in thinking about this practical issue [where there are two numbers the lower one is my super-lightweight travelling partner]. You will notice there is no posh frock in the list and almost all of these items are technical, quick to dry and robust kit from specialist clothing manufacturers.
Shorts – 2 pairs each
3/4 length trousers -2 or 3 pairs each
Trousers – 3 pairs each
Skirt – 1 [just me]
T-shirts or shirts – 8 each
Jumpers – 2 or 3 each
Long-sleeved tops – 1 or 4 (one of us does not feel the cold!)
Nightwear – 2 sets
Underwear – 6 pairs of Lowe Alpine / Helly Hansen / Rohan pants each
Footwear – 2 pairs of sandals, 1 pair walking shoes, 1 pair of outdoor shoes and 1 pair of Crocs each
We also packed cycling shorts, swimming costumes and each had a fleece jacket and cagoule / waterproof jacket.
6. Dream vs Reality
How did our 12 months travelling around Europe match up to the dream? Well I certainly wouldn’t have missed it for the world and here are some things I learnt:
Distance didn’t matter – some days we would only travel a few kilometres to a different campsite with a new view.
We did lots of things and saw so many new places but not every day was fun-packed – there were days when we just chilled and those were good days too.
We stopped worrying if we didn’t get to see every ‘must-see’ sight, it was our trip not a bucket list. We missed out all sorts of things we might have crammed in if we hadn’t been so relaxed, including Rome and Florence.
There are still chores – we still had laundry and van cleaning to do but they always happened somewhere different and were always much more fun than at home.
Despite being married for over 20 years, the trip gave us space to get to know each other even better and after living in a small space for 12 months our partnership was stronger.
Books – we book swapped rather than take e-books. These book swaps were from other campers or from campsite libraries and often resulted in interesting finds and amiable conversations.
Mainland Europe is not an homogeneous place, every European country is different with varied ways of doing things, different cultures and new products available in the shops. We loved this difference then and still do.
Be open to meeting new people and new experiences – within your own safety boundaries!
We walked and cycled almost every day, keeping fit was easy with so much time.
The weather isn’t always sunny. We travelled through France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Italy again, France some more, Spain and Portugal. It is surprisingly cold throughout inland Spain and Portugal from December to March and we mostly hugged the coastline for the milder weather. Even so for the three months from January to March in Spain and Portugal we had 38 days with some rain, more details here.
We didn’t book any campsites and only had a problem in Austria during August in one area because a large campsite was closed for refurbishment and that had a knock-on elsewhere. Some sites in Spain during the winter were busy but we always got a pitch. This may be more difficult these days as there are more people travelling.
What we missed most was our son and daughter-in-law and paying for them to fly out twice during our year was a great investment. They met us in self-catering cottages we had booked and this made a real difference to our enjoyment of the year away.
Other things I missed were Radio 4, crumpets and good tea bags!
The time goes very fast!
When I returned I didn’t really want to go back to work and our gap year gave me the motivation to start saving for early retirement.
I regularly walk along Oldfield Road in Salford and when I do I always stop and look at the view over the river to Manchester. The panorama takes in Beetham Tower, completed in 2006, and something of a novelty for some time. I only took my camera the day it snowed in 2009 and you will notice the lack of tall cranes in the photograph. This was the height of the economic downturn and it looked as if Beetham Tower might stand alone. I always thought that if any area was crying out to be a green space it was this one and would imagine sitting on this gently sloping bank with a picnic looking across at the bustle of Manchester and this always changing and interesting view.
Middlewood Locks is part of the 15-mile long Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal which ran from Salford to Prestolee, near Little Lever, from where one arm ran to Bolton and another to Bury. A spectacular breach in 1936 on the Bury arm led to the canal’s eventual closure. There are long-term plans to eventually restore the canal and the first section from the River Irwell through the Middlewood Locks development is complete. From there the line of the canal followed the railway line to Salford Crescent and Agecroft.
Instead of my dreamed-about park, the recession ended and the cranes returned. Over the last few years the large site has been developed [along with many other sites in Salford] for housing [or a neighbourhood as the developers call it]. When complete the site will have blocks of flats, townhouses, gardens, offices, a hotel, restaurants, bars, shops, a gym and parking.
What makes this site attractive for a Salfordian is that, after being closed for access for so long, we can now walk from East Ordsall Lane along the small section of canal through the development. Eventually we should be able to walk from the River Irwell path to Middlewood Locks. I could now sit and have that picnic by the canal. The pictures below were taken recently along the pleasant landscaped path showing the views to Manchester and the lovely Ordsall Chord bridge. Not all of Greater Manchester’s developments provide this sort of access and it is appreciated.
Short of winning the lottery or earning a pile of cash, it is going to take a fair few years to think through, plan for and accomplish early retirement. During that time you need to be on your toes as Government policy can change at the flick of a ballot paper and then change again while you have your head in a spreadsheet and the clouds. Every Government whim can affect your financial situation both positively and negatively.
I started work back in the dark ages of the 1970s when I was just 16 years old. At that time, as a woman, I thought I would get my state pension when I was 60. This seemed an eternity away but this pension age had been the same since the 1940s and I didn’t imagine it would change. I worked in a small business with no occupational pension, I didn’t earn very much and naturally lived frugally and had nothing spare to save. I didn’t even consider that I might need any more money than the state would give me.
Apart from a brief period as a local authority employee I didn’t really find employment in a workplace that had an occupational pension until I got my first job in the NHS when I was in my late 30s. By that time being 60 seemed much nearer and in a more secure position with my partner and a child, I willingly began paying into the NHS Pension Scheme. I worked part-time and still expected my state pension to make up most of my income in retirement.
My working life has been varied [25 jobs] and I have moved in and out of the NHS Pension Scheme but having first enrolled in the 1990s I have always been in the old final salary scheme that begins to pay when I am 60 years old. This is generally considered the best scheme as most people earn the highest amount at the end of their career. There has been little that is normal in my working life and while my NHS pension was worth about £4,000/year back in 2004 when I was a Public Health Manager, after a few years working as an administrator it had reduced to £2,300/year, thanks to pay disparity and despite working more years. If I had my time over I would have frozen my NHS pension but unfortunately I couldn’t see into the future. After travelling full-time I returned to the NHS expecting to be there until I could afford to retire [at the time I thought this would be over ten years]. Little did I know that the first whim of history to confound my plans was about to appear. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, was waiting in the wings with his back-of-a-fag-packet NHS reform that spit me out of my wonderful health service job and into a small charity.
In 1995 the government announced they were increasing the state pension age of women to 65. I knew this and I could see it was fair and was prepared for it. In 2007 they announced a further increase to 66 but I was unaffected by this change and my planning for early retirement continued. It wasn’t until 2011, when my planning was well underway, that this timetable was hastened and suddenly my state pension age was going to arrive one year later. The Government had taken a year’s worth of pension away from me and the spreadsheet had to be revised yet again and more money saved to provide enough to live on. The WASPI campaign is fighting for justice for all women, born in the 1950s, affected by the changes to the State Pension Age.
On the positive side, we will both benefit slightly from the new state pension introduced in 2016. This will be paid according to the years we have contributed.
Hopefully the state pension age will not change again for me, but who knows! My financial story will only really end when I die but for the moment I am happy that I did manage to retire when I was 57 years old. My experience does demonstrate how difficult it is to plan so far into the future when so much is out of our control and demonstrates how important a contingency fund is; if I had managed to take early retirement before 2011 my plans would have gone particularly awry.
As Governments come and go and policy changes, planning with certainty for more than a few years ahead is tough. I [and perhaps everyone saving for early retirement] move into the future hopefully rather than with certainty!
I am generally happy to follow rules and regulations but just occasionally I find a latent streak that has a tendency to kick against authority and doesn’t really like being told what to do. Is this recalcitrance why I love the freedom of owning a campervan? I certainly grasp the sense of the freedom of the open road with both hands when we are on holiday; I like to think I can go where I want and do what I please, so long as it doesn’t annoy anyone else of course. I am also one of those people who gets fidgety after more than a couple of hours being told where to go on a guided tour.
One of my regular bugbears is when I am told what to do by, what I consider to be, an unnecessary sign. It is those signs that state the obvious, such as danger deep water, keep away from the cliff edge or fire is hot that irritate me and make me want to dive in and try the forbidden activity.
Before we joined the free-living motorhoming movement we stayed in plenty of self-catering cottages. One particular Scottish house, while lovely, did come with a profusion of notices pinned to the walls telling us to do this and not do that; I could have wasted most of my precious holiday just reading them, never mind carrying them out. There were notices telling me not to clean the stainless steel with scourers; to leave muddy boots in the utility room; and to stack the plates neatly in the cupboards. Surely all of these things really go without saying! Is anyone that thoughtless? But the notice that really tipped me over the edge was the one in the bathroom stating that visitors should clean the bathroom daily! Every day! Really! On holiday! This notice was in my eye-line every time I had a wash or cleaned my teeth and every day I felt criticised for disobeying it but I was also determined not to carry it out. At the end of the holiday, feeling as if I had got away with something, I left the bathroom as clean as I would like to find it. Fortunately, there was no sign forbidding playing indoor golf and we were able to indulge in this sport up and down the large staircase and hall on a wet evening.
Camping is not without rules and while I might think that most of these rules could be taken for granted there are clearly campers who need to be reminded how to co-habit a green space considerately. And yet some campsites have gone overboard with the laminator and drawing pins. In the sanitary facilities I have seen notices about what the toilet brush should be used for; notices telling campers what to put [and not put] in the toilet are prevalent; reminders about leaving the shower clean for the next person crop up pretty often too; and most frustrating of all are those signs that tell me that the water from the hot tap will be hot, well I sincerely hope so!
We have stayed on campsites in France and Spain that have complex written rules regarding the use of washing lines. From these precise instructions I can only assume that some inconsiderate previous campers have happily hung their washing to dry from a young sapling that splintered under the weight of laundry and others have left their smalls flapping on a line they have strung across a dozen pitches. Perhaps it only takes one thoughtless camper for these notices to become inevitable.
I do understand that not everyone is the upstanding and trustworthy motorhome owner that I obviously am. But I ask readers, do all these signs really make any difference to the ill-mannered behaviour of the small minority? If you were going to leave your litter on your pitch, rather than in a bin, would you also be the sort of person to pay attention to a sign telling you to be tidy?
There are useful signs that tell me when reception is open or when not to use the sanitary block due to cleaning. Even a free spirit like me is keen to distinguish the ladies and gents facilities so that I don’t get embarrassed in the wrong room … but don’t get me started on those trendy places that use ambiguous images on their sanitary facilities; these have me dithering and uncertain, waiting in a corridor for someone else to exit so that I can work out where I am supposed to go.
My favourite and most useful notice is the one seen on Italian campsites that tells everyone which sink is exclusively for cleaning fish; invaluable if you don’t want fish-smelling laundry!
The Hexham Racecourse campsite is on the top of a hill and has wide open views over the racecourse to green hills and woodland. This lofty position does mean it catches even the merest hint of a breeze. The walk into Hexham is an easy 1.5 km but the return is back up the hill and a trifle more demanding. The peace and openness of this relaxed campsite suited us very well and the facilities are modern and clean.
Hexham is a quiet little town but certainly worth a walk around to see the abbey and the old gaol and there are plenty of cafes to sit in and watch the world go by. We walked down to the town in the early evening and pottered through the streets and the park.
On a wet day we took a longer walk from the campsite through luxuriant woodland where raindrops dripped long after a downpour had stopped. The long ribbon of West Dipton Wood follows the brook along a narrow valley to the charming Dipton Mill Inn. We followed tracks and lanes to the hamlet of Juniper where we picked up a path over the dramatically named Devil’s Water into Dipton Wood, a large area of woodland and heather that is varied and delightful. We didn’t meet another walker until we were on the paths and lanes that took us into the Tyne Valley and Corbridge where the sun started to peep out. We treated ourselves to pancakes with ice-cream in the Emporium Ice-cream Parlour before catching a train back to Hexham and tackling the hill up to the campsite.
Our next stop was the Caravan and Motorhome Club site by Whitley Bay. On the way we returned to Corbridge to visit the fascinating site of the Roman town that has been excavated. The Whitley Bay campsite is arranged so that pretty much everyone has some sort of sea view, looking across to the picturesque St Mary’s Lighthouse that can be reached by a short causeway between high tides. We walked along the coast to the centre of Whitley Bay and joined the queue for a Di Meo’s Ice Cream, spoilt for choice by their range of delicious flavours. There were plenty of people enjoying being on the beach and I decided it was warm enough to have a paddle in the sea as we walked back.
We ended our trip near to Durham. We walked to Causey Arch, the world’s oldest surviving single-arch railway bridge and along the old railway line into the village of Lanchester. The Lanchester Valley railway was built to carry iron ore and coal to the Consett steelworks and was opened in 1862. Trains ran here for just over one hundred years and today it is a level and popular walking and cycle path. In Lanchester we found the charming Kaffeehaus Amadeus, a small and delicious slice of Austria in County Durham.
Before we headed home a friend took us on a short walk to see Brancepeth, an unexpected picture-postcard village with a castle and St Brandon’s Church, which had exceptional 17th-century features but was destroyed by fire in 1998. The church was restored and is now a light and airy space with a stunning modern stained glass window depicting colourful flowers.